“Almost every officer on the force that has the years in, is retiring. We’re all crunching the numbers.”
“I just don’t want to do this anymore.”
Burnout. It’s a big risk in almost every profession. I’m going to concentrate on the worlds I know in this article (high-risk professions and freelance instruction) but burnout is universal. Jobs are hard. That’s why they are called work and not play. That’s why you get paid to do jobs, not pay to do them.
We think of burnout as the person who can’t do the job anymore, but almost worse is the life of a person who stays with a job he or she hates, just going through the motions. Miserable day after day until retirement, and when retirement arrives, the gift of free time falls in the lap of someone who has practiced being miserable for years or decades.
There are a lot of sources and models to explain burnout. My take is that when stress outmatches coping mechanisms, the burnout process starts. How fast it builds depends on a third factory— rest and recuperation. You can hold back burnout for a much longer time with good sleep, exercise and hobbies.
In the work I know, there are some obvious sources of stress. Dangerous jobs are stressful. Perhaps more stressful are jobs that can be boring for long stretches and then suddenly dangerous. The contrast between the adrenaline-fueled moments and the tedious hours of paperwork also induces stress. In the freelance world, the instability of income can be very stressful. All of these stresses affect your support network as well, your family. For every night you’ve spent out there wondering if you’d make it home, someone else sat by the phone, wondering if you’d make it home. I suspect sitting by the phone is even more stressful than being in the action.
Some other sources of stress, drawn from both worlds:
Outlining it: Avoiding burnout:
- Surrounded by people with less dedication than yourself. You may have spent a lifetime devoted to one pursuit, but to your student’s it’s a hobby. Your badge may represent your devotion to the sanctity of life, even at the cost of your own… but to the people you contact every day, you’re just another civil servant.
- The better you do, the more others are driven to tear you down.
- The top end is always lonely. If it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be any way to distinguish the top end. If you’re doing the same as everyone else, you’re unnecessary.
- Some of the people you serve. Some of them will be goofs. Or even bad people. Or accidents waiting to happen. Working corrections, you break up a lot of inmate fights. Once, early in my career, I stopped a potentially lethal beating. Then realized the guy I had saved was just as bad, maybe worse, then the one I saved him from. What’s the karmic equation on that?
- Some of your colleagues got into the profession for the wrong reasons, and the negative attention they get reflects on you. There are very few bad cops, but every time they make the news the citizens feel justified to treat you as a bad cop. Every time a teacher exploits students, prospective students have to wonder about you. There are two kinds of people drawn to certain jobs— those who feel a need to serve and those with big egos. Sometimes they are hard to tell apart, even from the inside.
- Sometimes it’s too easy. Most people drawn to dangerous professions or freelancer are adrenaline junkies. And some of them are quite competent. Which means it’s possible to burn out simply because the job isn’t challenging enough.
- Disconnect between you and your bosses. In Conflict Communication there is a section on longevity-oriented and goal-oriented groups. Line staff deal with the day-to-day job. Management deals with public perception and politics. Often, these are incompatible. In talks with officers all over the world— Hungary, Israel, Iraq, Canada, UK, US… this has been mentioned as the biggest source of job discontent in law enforcement.
- Mixed signals. What your clients say they want and what they actually want (or need) are often incompatible. Do you teach the things that work or the things that are cool? Isn’t it amazing how one person’s riot is another person’s free expression?
- Impossible Standards. Sometimes we even stress ourselves. You will make mistakes. If you can’t live with that, you might need to rethink your profession. You can’t undo mistakes, but you can learn from them.
- Lack of appreciation. When you are doing important things and doing them well, it’s normal to want a thank you now and then. It rarely happens. Turns this one around: What would your life be like without your weekly garbage pick up? And when was the last time you said, “Thanks?”
Burnout is a looming threat for all of us. Study the sources of of stress in your life and work out coping methods for each.
Don’t forget the universal coping methods:
- Get good rest.
- Keep your fitness level (particularly aerobics) up.
- Make sure your purpose is clear and keep it in mind.
- Keep a solid support network and be sure to show your appreciation.